Like a breath of fresh air
ADVENTURE sport travel is nothing new. Mountain climbers have been trekking to the Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro for yonks.
The Great Barrier Reef has long been a scuba-diving Mecca and where better to bungee jump than the place where it was invented?
But the newest activity to enter the travel agent's vernacular is freediving, thanks to the introduction of the watersport's first certification program, developed and launched by Scuba Schools International (SSI) in Australia last year.
Written by Australian champion freediver Mike Wells, the program is being rolled out in America, Asia and Europe this year.
Wells has personally trained every SSI instructor in Australia and plans to do the same overseas.
He is also working with dive travel company Dive Adventures to create freediving trips, both for pleasure and training.
Prospective freedivers can either travel to do their course at a destination well-suited to the sport, such as the Philippines or Vanuatu, or complete their course closer to home and then plan a freediving holiday. Luckily, many of the destinations that attract freedivers because of their calm, clear, warm and deep waters are also popular holiday spots.
They're often tropical and cheap.
I got an insight into this liberating sport during a recent trip to Vanuatu, where I attended a three-day crash course in freediving with a group of dive- industry leaders.
Just like in scuba diving, a person can be trained and certified at various levels in freediving.
While that may seem obvious, Mike was the first person to actually develop a freediving course structure, certification system and instructor training program.
The biggest difference between the two types of diving – free and scuba – is about breathing.
Scuba diving is all about constantly breathing in and out.
One of the first things new scuba divers learn is to “never hold your breath”.
Freediving is exactly the opposite. It's about how long you can last, and how deep you can go, on one breath.
In my introductory scuba course, I was cramming my head full of facts, theories, rules and equipment but in the freediving workshop, the first thing we did was lie on the ground and learn how to clear our minds.
Stretched out across the lawn at our hotel, we practised yogic breathing to slow our heart rates and calm our bodies.
Less than an hour later, we were all holding our breath for three minutes or more in the resort pool.
The next morning, we put our newfound zen-ness to the test in Espiritu Santo's stunningly beautiful Blue Hole.
After mastering the duck-diving technique, we all comfortably dived to 14 metres in the hole's sparkling blue waters.
High on our seemingly easy achievements, it was time to hit the open ocean for a crack at 20 and 25 metres.
The water over the wreck of the SS President Coolidge was calm but slightly more challenging.
We had to keep an eye on the lines to make sure they didn't drift too close to the wreck and the visibility wasn't quite as good as in the Blue Hole.
I did my best to focus on my breathing and completely relax, before taking the plunge with Alana to 20 metres. When the weight at the bottom of the line came into sight, I took in the view of the coral-covered bow of the Coolidge and wished the moment could last longer. I felt good. No urge to breathe, but I knew it would come soon. So, after posing for a photo, I began my ascent.
I will always remember the joy of that dive. I was calm and comfortable, exploring a ship- wreck on my own steam rather than relying on a clunky tank strapped to my back.
My 25-metre dives were a bit less comfortable as I pushed myself beyond that urge to breathe and battled with equalisation issues.
The weight hung at 30 metres just below, so tantalisingly close, but my aggravated ears would not cooperate.
One of the goals of the workshop was to get at least one of us to 30 metres after just two- and-a-half days of training.
To Mike's knowledge, never before has anyone new to the sport reached the magic 100-foot mark in such a short amount of time. Luckily, two of the men in our group did make it to 30 metres – a testament to Mike's teaching approach.
The depth is a milestone because it marks the transition into depths which have dramatic effects on the human body.
It is also the depth at which a freediver first really experiences free fall.
When weighted properly, a freediver becomes negatively buoyant below about 15 metres and can stop kicking and simply sink.
Freefall is said to be euphoric.
It's a time to let go and enjoy the feeling of the water rushing past.
The other goal of the trip was for Mike to set a new record as the first person to freedive to the stern of the Coolidge, which sits in 70 metres of water to the sand.
It was a big dive for Mike, but certainly wouldn't rival his deepest – an astonishing 90 metres.
Three of us waited on scuba just below 60 metres at the stern to capture Mike's dive in photographs and on film.
What Mike said to us on the shore before we swam out really struck a chord: “Be careful. What you guys are doing is way more dangerous than what I'm doing.”
Here he was about to dive to 70 metres on a single breath of air and he was worried about us with our big steel tanks and redundant air supplies.
A freediver relies solely on himself or herself. The preparation is mental, rather than mechanical. No busted o-rings to fix, computer batteries to check or decompression times to consider.
Mike pulled off the dive with ease, rocketing down to the stern and posing for photos before heading back to the surface.